By Nan Victoria Munger
“If I was a mayor,” wrote seven-year-old Shemarc, “all the homeless people would have a place to live.” In 2008, Joan McAllister created an anthology of poetry and artwork by homeless children in New York City, and Shemarc was one of the children featured. The anthology complemented a monthly publication Joan had created 21 years earlier: How…When…Where, a newsletter for homeless families in New York City.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Joan graduated from Stanford University in 1951 with a degree in journalism. After college, she worked for the United Press in Los Angeles for a year and then travelled around Europe with her mother. When they returned to the United States in 1952, Joan’s mother dropped her off in New York. “I was vaguely aware that I looked like a foreigner because it was winter and I was in California cottons,” says Joan.
Unintimidated by the City, Joan began working at Newsweek, where she ascended the corporate ladder from “mail boy,” to clip desk, and then to researcher. There, her upward path was stymied, not by inability, but by gender. “It took me a couple years to figure out I was not going to go anywhere,” says Joan. “Girls stopped at researchers.” Deciding she had better “get someplace with a future,” Joan switched to television. She got a job at NBC, where she felt she “was on equal footing with every male there.” She became a writer immediately.
Though Joan eventually married and retired to raise her children, her work as a writer was far from finished. Once her children were grown, she started volunteering. At the time, Joan says, “the issue of family homelessness was just working its way to the surface of public consciousness.” Joan mentioned to a friend that she thought homeless children would benefit from a baseball team, and was surprised to learn that a team already existed. “She said this stuff is all here, they just didn’t know about it and maybe I should figure out a way to let them know.” Joan smiles. “And I said ah, I can do that. And we started a newsletter for homeless families.”
Joan visited shelters, talked to families, and created the newsletter listing services and offering advice on finding a job, healthcare, and facing other challenges. When the first issue was complete, Joan personally delivered it to hotels and shelters. Since that first issue in 1987, the newsletter has come out monthly.
At the end of 2016, control over the newsletter was transferred to Picture the Homeless, a rights organization with which Joan had been working for decades. “[It was] a natural evolution because they are themselves connected to the families,” Joan says. She is happy with the transition. “More and more it seemed to me that I was not spending as much time in the shelters keeping in touch with the people I was writing about,” she says. “It takes a lot of time. I’m almost out of steam.” As if in agreement, one of her dogs plops himself down for a nap.
Today, Joan lives on Charles Street in the Village with her two dogs. In Joan’s office hang many letters of recognition for her work. “Joan McAllister’s efforts have bridged the gap and empowered thousands of parents over the last twenty years to help themselves cope with challenging conditions,” reads a 2007 proclamation from the Office of the Public Advocate for the City of New York.
“Joan has devoted her life to trying to make the world a better place,” says Joan’s niece, Jennifer Wade. Looking back on her life, Joan says she regrets only “that I didn’t inherit a million dollars.” Her niece laughs. “So that what, you could give it away?”
“Yeah!” says Joan. “It’d be fun! I would spread it out among all the people who have done good things to make other people happy.”